Loud is not funny—not by itself, anyway. Loud as the explosive result of a savvy, deliberate silence can be a kick; without that forethought, it's just the thing to drive your fingernails into your companion's knee. More often than not, noise is a desperate way to bludgeon you away from the fact that you'll hear nothing of resonance when it's quiet. In ACT's production of the Charles Mee comedy Wintertime, all kinds of cacophonous activity take place—and not a helluva lot else is going on otherwise.
Mee's setup for Wintertime is, admittedly, begging for the giddy noise of screwball comedy. Young Jonathan (Michael A. Newcomer) has brought his new love Ariel (Sarah Grace Wilson) to his snowy private getaway, only to find his mother, Maria (Suzanne Grodner) and her lover, Francois (Daniel Oreskes) enjoying a little bit of privacy, too. Before the obligatory hilarity can ensue, the awkwardness has to be further complicated by the arrival of Frank (Robert Dorfman), Frank's lover Edmund (Timothy McCuen Piggee), Francois' one-night stand Jaqueline (Liz McCarthy), two feuding lesbians (Laura Kenny and Beth Andrisevic), and a gonzo deliveryman-cum-priest (Paul Morgan Stetler).
Trouble is, none of it reaches us. The "comedy" is so busy banging about the stage that it has isolated itself from any assistance, and doesn't need you to find it. Except for the raucous, pit-bull sensibility of Kenny—"Bertha," she growls affectionately at her lover, "you were born grouchy. You live in a snit, and you will die in a huff."—no one in the cast makes a meaningful impression. Engaging us is an afterthought (and so are the obscure, international accents).
Unfortunately, director Brian Kulick usurps what could work in the situation—Mee's manic contemplation of human jealousy—with showy, effect-laden set pieces. As written, the script requires the frustrated, regret-laden striptease by the family at an impromptu funeral, but Kulick separates his events from the reasons that inspired them; they seem to be there to show us how wild, how devil-may-care Mee can be. Kulick hasn't even made clear why anyone is talking, much less why they should all be taking their clothes off.
Mee is far more into talk than action, anyway, and, oh, how his people talk. He doesn't give people speeches, he gives them arias—extravagant, provocative solo turns careening toward a bravura high note. Characters walk on, deliver their master's thesis on relationships, and await a similar response in turn from whoever else is on the stage. Whatever tension there is comes from Mee's frequently astonishing capacity to honor and articulate the stubborn, personal worldview of many different personalities. He's got an artist's understanding that every last one of them (of us) is full of bunk, and when each last little hypocrite is forced to rub up against the other, the tangible friction can result in revelation that we don't feel here.
To be fair, Mee here is all contemplation (some of it trite) and no friction. He's not the first person to call us out on our romantic doublespeak, and impromptu stripteases can only add so much originality. Kulick is a frequent collaborator with the playwright, though I can't understand why; he staged last year's popular, and better written, Big Love (also about romantic fallibility) at ACT with similar results. Mee will tell you, as he does in the production's program, that he believes Kulick, his longtime friend, turns his work into Shakespeare. I would say this were true if he means his plays become tales of sound and fury, signifying nothing.